One thing was forgotten in all the talk about Kentucky’s prized freshmen finally coming together in the NCAA tournament and leading the Wildcats to the national championship game—the Connecticut Huskies never lose on the game’s brightest stage.
Don’t believe me?
ESPN Stats & Info provides the proof:
The final score of the thrilling contest was 60-54 in the Huskies’ favor, as Bleacher Report pointed out:
It was the first time in the history of the NCAA tournament that a No. 7 seed cut down the nets as the national champions, and Kevin Ollie became the first coach since Steve Fisher in 1989 to win the national title within his first two seasons as a Division I coach.
The official Twitter account of Connecticut men’s basketball had some fun in the immediate aftermath at the expense of “lifetime” Kentucky fan and rapper Drake:
Without further ado, let’s dig into some of the game’s top highlights.
Julius Randle was somewhat of a nonfactor for much of the contest, but his one block certainly turned some heads when Phillip Nolan attacked the rim in the first half. Still, it’s a safe bet that Wildcats fans would likely trade that one highlight block for a better overall game from their superstar, who finished with 10 points and six rebounds on only 3-of-7 shooting from the field.
Randle wasn’t the only Kentucky player to post an impressive highlight play in the loss. Alex Poythress impressed with some rim-rattling dunks throughout the game.
Of course, DeAndre Daniels proved that the Huskies can also throw down some dunks of their own.
While the dunks certainly make for exciting highlights, the sharp shooting of Niels Giffey from behind the three-point line was likely more important in shaping the outcome of the contest. Giffey hit two critical three-pointers in the game, which helped stretch the Kentucky defense and open up penetration lanes for Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.
Thanks in part to those lanes, Napier finished with 22 points, six rebounds and three assists, while also adding three steals on the defensive side of the ball.
In fact, it was that stifling defense that ultimately propelled the Huskies to the national title. Boatright added three steals as well, and Connecticut forced Kentucky to turn the ball over 13 times. The Harrison brothers never looked comfortable and finished with 15 points on 6-of-16 shooting from the field and 3-of-9 shooting from behind the three-point line.
The Harrisons also turned the ball over seven times and fell victim to the same stifling defensive pressure that shut down the Florida Gators’ backcourt in the Final Four game.
Napier and Boatright clearly won the battle of the backcourts, finishing with 36 combined points, six combined assists, 10 combined rebounds and six combined steals. Napier was ecstatic after the game and proclaimed that his team was hungry during the postseason ban of a year ago.
From the Kentucky side of things, Randle’s lack of production certainly hurt (although it can perhaps be explained away by lingering health concerns that hampered him all game).
With Willie Cauley-Stein out with injury, the Wildcats needed Randle to enforce his will down low and give them a decided rebounding advantage against a backcourt-dominated Connecticut team. Instead, the Huskies won the battle on the glass to the tune of 34-33, which was too much to overcome when their dominance from the guard position was factored in as well.
Kentucky coach John Calipari recognized that free throws (the Wildcats finished an abysmal 13-of-24 from the charity stripe) also played a critical role in the loss, according to The Associated Press, via ESPN.com:
"We had our chances to win. We're missing shots, we're missing free throws. We just didn't have enough.”
Looking ahead, both teams will likely look quite different next season.
Kentucky will go through its annual ritual of sending a handful of freshmen to the NBA draft and then restocking with a loaded recruiting class. Calipari stakes claim to the No. 2 class in the country according to 247Sports, and names like Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. will probably be as recognizable as Randle’s is now at this time next year.
The champion Huskies will have to defend their crown without the services of superstar Napier.
Working under the assumption that Daniels and Boatright return to college next year, (which is a larger assumption in Daniels’ case than Boatright’s) there will still be plenty of talent in the cupboard for Connecticut.
Whether that is national championship talent remains to be seen.
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